This is the second in our series highlighting Fellows of the Royal Society who were involved in the First World War.


Bertram Hopkinson FRS


Bertram Hopkinson was born in 1874, and his early scientific development owed much to his father John, an electrical engineer elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1878 – he shares these strong family influences with the first Fellow in our series, Keith Lucas. Hopkinson prospered as a day pupil at St Paul’s School, securing a scholarship to Trinity College Cambridge where he read for the Mathematical Tripos. He subsequently studied experimental physics at King’s College London, where his father was the first incumbent of the Siemens Chair of Electrical Engineering, founded in 1892. After graduation he read for the Bar and was recognised as a pupil of distinction, called to the Bar in 1897 and the following year sent to Australia to carry out a legal enquiry. He never got there. His father, brother and two sisters were killed in a climbing accident in Switzerland.

Hopkinson returned to England to take up his father’s unfinished work. He was responsible, among other projects, for the design of electric tramways in Leeds, Newcastle and Crewe. Having succeeded in the practical aspects of his new undertaking, he also discovered material for future scientific research. He was awarded the James Watt Medal by the Institution of Civil Engineers for his experiments on the electrolysis of pipes and other associated problems. These first papers showcase his remarkable talent for the realistic application of scientific principles to practical problems, a talent which blossomed in his later career in the Air Force.

At the age of 29, and wholly untried as a teacher, Hopkinson’s considerable reputation and personable manner led to his appointment to the Chair of Mechanism and Applied Mathematics in the University of Cambridge, thereby taking charge of the successful and growing Cambridge Engineering School. His father had taken a helpful interest in the school’s development, and following their untimely deaths in Switzerland, one of the extensions to the engineering laboratory was named the Hopkinson Wing after his father and brother. While at Cambridge, Bertram Hopkinson was elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1910, ‘for his knowledge of and investigations in applied science, especially in relation to the applications of electricity and to the action of internal combustion engines’.

He became an energetic promoter of the Officers’ Training Corps, and organised in it an engineering section, again following his father who had been instrumental in the foundation of the Corps of Electrical Engineers. Bertram became associated with various research committees, taking on the role of Secretary to the Engineering War Committee, set up by the Royal Society and consisting of engineering experts to advise on problems of war. This led to close relations with the technical experts of the Army and Navy, and determined the direction of Hopkinson’s activities during the First World War.

When the war began he obtained a commission in the Royal Engineers, teaching at Chatham, then the Admiralty where he shone at collecting intelligence, and where he also experimented with arrangements for protecting warships from the effects of mines and torpedoes. His previous work on metal stress, alloys, magnetism, and the nature and measurement of explosions led him to design technology for attack as well as defence, developing bombs for use by aircraft and methods for the protection of ships. This led to a position of increased responsibility under the Air Board from 1915, initially to conduct experiments on bombs.

An armament experimental station was started at Orford Ness in 1915, entirely under Hopkinson’s control; this was to have a great influence on the development of armaments in the Royal Flying Corps and then the Air Force, and it was also here that Hopkinson learnt to fly. Apart from bombing research, there was the systematic development of night flying and navigation in clouds and bad weather, leading to Hopkinson being made responsible for the testing of aeroplanes at Martlesham Heath. After Lord Rothermere reorganised the Air Force in 1917, Hopkinson also took over control of experimental work at the RAE and Naval Aircraft Experimental Stations at Grain, steadily increasing his influence on the general development of aeronautics. In June 1918 he became Deputy Controller of the Technical Department.

Only two months later he was killed in an air crash. Henry Tizard (FRS 1926) worked under Hopkinson and describes the event: ‘At the time of his death he was flying a Bristol Fighter, and had started from Martlesham Heath on his way to London. The weather was threatening at the start, although the sky was only partly clouded, but in the neighbourhood of London the conditions were much worse and the sky was completely covered with low clouds. It seems clear he flew above the clouds for some way, and then finding no gap descended through them. He probably lost control of his machine in the clouds (which would have been very easy for even a very experienced pilot to do on the type of machine he was flying) and on going through the clouds did not have sufficient time to regain control before the machine crashed, and he was instantaneously killed.’

Sir Alfred Ewing (FRS 1887) one of Hopkinson’s proposers for election to the Society, said of him: ‘It is indeed a tragedy in this regard that he should have been taken at the very summit of his powers, and at the moment when they were so fully engaged in serving the nation’s urgent need. His genius for applied science was hereditary. He had the same faculty as gave his father an honoured place in the history of electrical engineering, the same rare combination of mastery of theory and scientific method with appreciation of practical requirements and possibilities. It was this that enabled him to be conspicuously successful … at Cambridge: and it was this that made the value of his war work almost unique. It chanced that his own researches before the war, and those of students working under him in the Cambridge laboratory, formed in some degree a preparation for what was to come. They dealt with the processes and results of explosions, with the action of internal-combustion engines, and with the fatigue of materials under incipient overstrain. They were of high interest in themselves and in their bearing on matters of engineering practice. But to Hopkinson they were more: one may say they constituted an apprenticeship for the great work of his life, which was the work of the past four years.’

He was buried at St Giles Cemetery, Cambridge on 30 August 1918 after a military funeral.


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